A Conversation With Sari Schorr: New York Blues Hall of Fame Singer Performing at Carnegie Hall’s Lead Belly Festival

New York Blues Hall of Fame singer and Brooklyn resident Sari Schorr is gaining a lot of momentum as a solo artist. After being a member of Joe Louis Walker’s band in 2013 and then Popa Chubby’s band in 2014, Schorr met legendary producer Mike Vernon in 2015, who upon hearing Schorr’s original work came out of retirement to produce her debut solo album coming out later this year.

Schorr will be performing at the Lead Belly Festival taking place on February 4 at the fabled Carnegie Hall in New York City, where she will be joining Buddy Guy, Eric Burdon, and many others to pay tribute to renowned New York folk-blues musician Lead Belly. Her other New York performances include shows at The Falcon in Marlboro on February 7, Turing Point in Piermont on February 12, and The Cutting Room in New York City on February 17. NYS Music spoke with Schorr on topics ranging from working with Mike Vernon to performing at Carnegie Hall.

Nicholas Cho: Before singing the blues, I heard you first started in opera. Is that correct?

Sari Schorr: Yeah I was studying with a Julliard opera teacher. That was really the best thing that I ever did because it allowed me to learn how to use my voice properly, which is why now I can put a lot of demands on my voice now, and I don’t have a problem with my voice at all. I’ve been really lucky.

NC: When did you switch to the blues?

SS: I was doing a lot of jazz singing, and I wanted to make an album for a friend of mine who had a successful label here in New York. He had come to one of my shows and said, “Honey, you’re a blues singer. Why are you fighting this?” And I was, “Because I love the subtlety of jazz and the nuance.” It was kind of like a self-awareness thing—realizing that my voice was just so well-suited for blues and it was really the vehicle to use my voice to its full potential.

I had always loved the music from my early influences of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. When I went back to discover who were their influences, I discovered Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and Big Mama Thornton. What I loved about the music that they were singing was that it was very honest, and it was this genre that would allow such honest communication between performer and audience. I loved this dialogue that the blues allowed.

NC: What was it like having Mike Vernon as your producer for your debut album?

SS: He’s a legendary producer—a pioneer—and he is the truest form of an artist I’ve ever worked with. He is so generous with his talent and with his energy. Working with him is perfect. I’m doing the next album with him and the one after that. We’ve already agreed to do two albums together.

We adore each other—he’s family to me. He brings out the best in everybody he works with. The musicians loved being with him in the studio. He’s got boundless energy and enthusiasm, and he has a vision so clear in his head on how to make the best possible album in keeping line with what the artist wants.

NC: How far into the recording process are you for your debut album?

SS: Well we just finished mixing, I would say, 80% of the album. There are two new songs on the record that we just added, so those will be getting mixed in the next couple of weeks.

NC: How did you get involved with the Lead Belly Festival?

SS: There is a terrific guy from Norway who is the manager of one of the venues I work at, and he talked me up to one of the producers of the show. That producer happened to be at the venue with an artist, and this manager, who is always promoting me in any way he can, told the producer, “There’s this singer, Sari Schorr—you’ve got to see her,” and that was the introduction.

The thing is, is that this venue is one that usually takes me two hours to get to from Brooklyn, and there were many times where I was exhausted coming back from overseas and jet-lagged, and I still went out there consistently, and that’s how it happened.

NC: What influence did Lead Belly have on you?

SS: Lead Belly was a phenomenal storyteller, and learning how to tell stories through music and use a lot of symbolism and imagery—that’s the influence Lead Belly had on my songwriting—this incredible honesty and simplicity in the lyrics that’s really deceiving. He’s speaking a lot under the surface of the lyrics.

NC: What is it like for you to be performing at Carnegie Hall?

SS: It’s an honor because it’s such a historic venue. It’s an honor because of the other artists that are going to be performing—Buddy Guy who I met when I did a co-bill with Joe Louis Walker and him up in Canada, and then with Eric Burdon and Walter Trout, who is going to be on my album. It’s really an honor to be a part of history in this way, and also being able to honor such an important man who contributed so much to blues music.